Finland's unique position affords a clear view of both East and West

They sit quietly, busily, among the trees in the far corner of Europe. Their capital is a modern Western city with some good Russian restaurants. They drive cars from Sweden and West Germany on gasoline from the Soviet Union.

The Finns have a keen sense of where they are.

On both edges and in between. They share a longer border with the Soviets -- nearly 800 miles -- than any other nonsocialist country. A Westward-looking market economy sitting on a touchy Russian flank.

It takes a steady hand.

As testament to Finnish stability, President Urho Kekkonen, the chief protagonist of Finland's subtle and ambidextrous foreign policy, celebrated his 25th anniversary in office this month.

Over domestic issues, Finland turns over prime ministers and cabinets with the best of them. But in foreign affairs, the Finns form left wing to right are 98 percent unanimous behing the country's official line, according to a Finnish political analyst.

It's geared to remaining an independent nation in a permanently vulnerable position.

The context now -- and the map always pins Finland into a larger context -- is a heightened geopolitical atmosphere since events in Afghanistan, uncertainty just across the Baltic in Poland, a NATO arms stockpile in nearby Norway, and a more hawkish American administration dealing with the situation in El Salvador.

The Finns, with what a Western diplomat describes as subtle, complex, "almost Byzantine" personalities, are calmly in the middle. And they prosper.

They have a knack for turning special vulnerabilities into advantages.

This year, growing trade with the Soviet Union -- Finland's best customer -- will keep Finns employed while a slump bears down on their business to the West.

Finns will be turning out more ships and heavy machinery, mostly to pay the Soviets for two-thirds of Finland's oil.

The USSR, one Finn says, is one of the reasons the Finnish economy is stronger than that ofneighboring Sweden.

But could Russian oil become a political pressure point?

"We don't understand the question that way," says Minister of Foreign Trade Esko Rekola. "It's business."

The Finns are fond of saying reassuringly, "They don't trade with us because of our blue eyes," meaning the Soviets need what Finns have to sell.

But the USS is sensitive about the politics of its neighbors, especially since the invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviets have used trade cutoffs as a lever on Finnish politics in decades past. Usually they send up volleys of critical commentary in Pravda and Izvestia.

The Finns are careful and consistent. A grand duchy of the Russian empire until 1917, Finland sided against the Russians (and with the Germans) in World War II. It left them with a whopping war debt that they became famous for repaying in full, on time. The two nations signed a treaty of mutual aid and assistance in 1948 that has been compared to the Soviet treat with Afghanistan.

So the Finnish line since the war, shaped by then-President Juho K. Paasikivi and carried forward since 1956 by President Kekkonen, is a delicate one.

The theme seems to be this: Face West, but don't make the Russians nervous. Sustaining the level of trade with the Soviets at about 20 percent of Finnish foreign trade has been a longstanding ingredient.

"We have to be considered a Western European country," says Aarne Castren, a political specialist with the Confederation of Finnish Industries. "This grows more and more vague as you get farther from Finland."

Finlandization? "Perhaps we're too sensitive to the term," says a Finnish Foreign Ministry official. But what looks to some in the West like a timid accommodation to Soviet pressures, to te Finns is a tough-minded realism --making the best of a n awkward situation.

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